How to get the cherry blossom experience in Tokyo without the crowds

Family-friendly, affordable and rich in culture, the real Tokyo confounds pre-conceived notions. Here are seven common myths about the Japan capital (and some intriguing truths – piglet cafés!).

  • Louise Southerden
  • February 2020

This fast-paced and quirky metropolis continues to surprise with its unique attractions and hospitable culture. We debunk 7 myths about charming Tokyo.

Cherry blossom season is the best time to go

Japan might be crazy about its national flower but hotels and flights can be booked solid during sakura season (March to April). Instead, visit in early spring – late February to early March – for the darker, sweeter smelling and arguably prettier, plum blossoms. Kairakuen (about an hour out of Tokyo) has some 3000 plum trees, or try the established gardens of Koishikawa Korakuen in town.

It’s not family-friendly

For all its sophistication, Tokyo is incredibly child-oriented thanks to interactive attractions such as teamLab’s Borderless digital art installation and the Ghibli Museum, which celebrates animator Hayao Miyazaki – the “Walt Disney of Japan”. There’s also a Hello Kitty theme park, called Sanrio Puroland, and the marine-themed Tokyo DisneySea, right next to Tokyo Disneyland.

It’s near Mount Fuji

Only from space could Japan’s highest mountain be said to be close to Tokyo. The 3776-metre active volcano (relax, it last erupted in 1707) is about 100 kilometres south-west of the city. The good news? You can still see its snowy cone on clear days from the top of TOKYO SKYTREE, the world’s tallest free-standing broadcast tower, or the Mori Art Museum’s open-air Sky Deck.

It’s hyper-modern and futuristic

Japan’s capital can be charmingly old school. Side-by-side with cutting-edge architecture, you’ll see women in kimonos, trams circling low-rise neighbourhoods such as Otsuka and quiet lanes populated by tiny rustic yakitori bars that have been there for decades. Two tips for first-timers: cash is king and bank ATMs often don’t accept foreign cards; use the ATMs in convenience stores such as FamilyMart instead.

It costs too much

Tokyo quietly slipped off the “10 most expensive cities” list a few years ago, which is happy news for travellers. Subway tickets cost as little as 140yen (less than AUD $2). Affordable accommodation options abound: try the high-ceilinged “pods” at the new Hotel Zen Tokyo (from 4000 yen, about AUD $54) or a room at Hoshino Resorts’ new OMO5 Tokyo Otsuka design hotel (7000 yen, or about AUD $94). For cheap eats, make for Tokyo’s hole-in-the-wall izakaya bars or Japan’s first Michelin-starred ramen joint, Tsuta, where you’ll pay less than AUD $10 for a bowl of world-class noodles.

It’s packed with people

Even when doing the Shibuya Scramble or shuffling down Harajuku’s Takeshita Street with teenagers and tourists, Tokyo never feels unpleasantly crowded. That’s partly because of Japan’s culture of consideration, and partly because it’s so easy to get around. Trains come every two to four minutes on the Metro subway, lines are colour-coded and English signs make it tourist-friendly. At green spaces such as Ueno Park you might even forget you’re in one of the world’s most populous cities.

Everyone drinks green tea

Espresso, drip or decaf – you name it, Tokyo drinks it. Starbucks is big – the US brand opened its largest Tokyo roastery in February 2019, a “coffee wonderland” complete with Kengo Kuma-designed façade, Milanese bakery and cold brew bar. For more beans for your buck, try Downstairs Coffee in Roppongi, run by a former latte-art champion, the cosy Little Nap in Yoyogi or the ultra-modern Café Kitsune in Omotesando.

3 things that are true

Tokyo is kooky, it’s like the “mad scientist” of world cities. Think piglet and hedgehog cafés (cat cafés are so five minutes ago; make sure to choose ethically run ones), a giant Godzilla head atop the Hotel Gracery in Shinjuku and maid bars where the waitresses actually cry when you leave.

A piglet peers over a wooden fence.
First-time visitors to Tokyo will love its quirky piglet cafes.

It’s also one of the safest cities in the world. You can leave your wallet or bag almost anywhere in Tokyo and it will most likely still be there, untouched, an hour or a day later. In fact, last year, Tokyo was ranked the world’s safest city for the third year running by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

And, akin to this, Tokyoites are never too busy to be nice. People are unfailingly polite: as in the rest of Japan, respect for others prevails, even on the subway where signs ask passengers to switch their phones to silent and refrain from making or taking calls – and everyone does.